Meet Your Tiniest Neighbors Using Macro Gear and a Field Studio Setup

Clay Bolt is a firm believer that our association to nature begins at family. The natural history and conservation photographer has been fascinated with the populace ’ s smaller creatures inhabiting his native South Carolina since youth. In 2009, his rage for local wildlife became the drive force behind the international photograph project, Meet Your Neighbours. in concert with scottish photographer Niall Benvie, he embarked on a mission to engage a ball-shaped community in discovering and photographing the frequently underappreciated and overlook common creatures around us .
The use of a field studio apparatus to backlight person subjects against a aglow egg white background offers participating photographers a distinctive dash, which elevates the profile of these diminutive creatures, while besides eliminating distinctions between common and alien .
Earlier this spring, we spoke with Bolt about the determination behind Meet Your Neighbours and asked him to describe the macro and lighting techniques used to photograph the many species encountered through this project .
Jill Waterman: Please give us some background about the Meet Your Neighbours project. What inspired you to start the project?

Clay Bolt: I had been working in the Carolinas for number of years when I came up with the idea. At that stage I was doing a lot of sour locally, but it was n’t actually getting out beyond the region. I began to meet other people who were doing the lapp kinds of things. We were all working in our own bubbles and felt kind of isolated .
Photographs © Clay Bolt, except where otherwise noted
Imperial Moth Caterpillar (Eacles Imperialis) on Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum) leaves in fall. Imperial Moth Caterpillar (Eacles Imperialis) on Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum) leaves in fall. sometimes I feel that people working close to home aren ’ t truly accepted as being important. A lot of people doing conservation work photograph in places that are considered much more alien. That kind of frustrated me because I was living in one of the most biodiverse regions of the earth, however when I tried to submit my stories to magazines or organizations that supported photographers during that time, they would say, “ Well, you ‘re just in South Carolina. ” When people think of South Carolina, there are a batch of things that come to mind, but normally it ‘s not the richness and abundance of the biodiversity. indeed, I truly wanted to change that .
I ‘d been thinking about how to unite these photographers around the earth, people like myself, but besides raise the profile of these overlook species and level the play airfield, because the truth is, everything is in person ’ s backyard .
How did you come up with the idea of photographing critters against a white background, and how did you go about spreading the word about the project to other photographers?
My ally Niall Benvie, a scots wildlife photographer, had experimented with a studio apartment proficiency that David Littschwager and Susan Middleton had used to make studio portraits of threaten species for the book here Today. They were former assistants of Richard Avedon, who made fashion portraits against white backgrounds. Niall combined Littschwager and Middleton ’ randomness studio proficiency with Avedon ’ s portrait proficiency and created what he called The Field Studio .
Trout Lily, Erythronium Americanum, photographed with the Field StudioTrout Lily, Erythronium Americanum, photographed with the Field Studio You do n’t have to dig up an orchid to photograph it, you just put this blank acrylic fabric behind it, light it with small strobes, and it looks like a studio portrait, but then you walk aside after a few minutes and the species is finely, nothing ’ s been harmed. I very liked the component of not taking things out of their environment to make these portraits, a well as the fact that by removing the context, you could n’t see where something was anymore. You fair saw the species for the beautiful thing that it is. thus, you could put a beetle from North Carolina following to a beetle from Mozambique, and you did n’t know where it was from, you good realize what an amazing creature it is .
In early 2008, Niall and I were talking about this technique, and he said, “ I actually wish this would catch on. ” I did some noodling around and came back to him with an estimate for how we could unite photographers around the world who are matter to in their local anesthetic wildlife and, by using this proficiency, they would have a unite manner to document these species. The theme is that photographers make the employment locally, and then use those images to do local anesthetic exhibitions, and work with local anesthetic NGOs, like I had been doing, and Niall had been doing in Scotland. That was how it began .
Elementary school students experiencing nature in the fieldElementary school students experiencing nature in the field We started by sending out invitations to NGOs around the world to try to get some interest. Within a year we started picking up more and more photographers. This past February was our 10-year anniversary, and over time we ‘ve had photographers produce exhibitions, work with children, and give presentations, literally all over the world. Meet Your Neighbours was a biography changer for me, and I like to think it was for a fortune of other participants .
You developed this project using a franchise model, with you supplying support materials and helping with contract negotiations. How did this process work, and why did you set things up that way?
We did n’t want this to be a project only for elite photographers, so that ‘s what we did early on on. I very believe there ‘s then a lot make to be done right immediately in the environmental kingdom ; there are therefore many stories that need to be told. I did n’t want this project to be limited to full-time photographers, because there are many people who are passionate about a local wetland or things like that—grandparents who have absolve time, or young people still in high school who want to tell stories. I wanted to open the project up to everyone, but we besides wanted to make sure the participants were doing things the correct way, representing the mission, and not stressing out or harming the wildlife. We felt the best way to do that was to help mentor and guide these early on photographers .
American Toad, Bufo AmericanusAmerican Toad, Bufo Americanus I spent the first three or four years working with these different photographers, and we had some accord money, which helped buy some of the original kit. I besides spent a set of my own money, because I in truth believed in the mission and wanted to help encourage people to do it right. so, I gave lots of presentations and did videos and other things to help make the process easy for people. It was very parturiency intensive in the beginning, but people have done these amazing projects, which has brought me a lot of rejoice .
Please describe Field Studio setup used for the Meet Your Neighbours project.
When Niall started doing this proficiency, he had quite a unplayful studio setup, with a barrage powered strobes, which looks capital. But I knew that I ’ five hundred be hiking into some distant areas to use this proficiency, so I wanted a more backpack-friendly interpretation. I constructed a little mesa with PVC piping material that stands about 18 inches off the ground, with an 18 adam 24 ” rectangle of translucent acrylic on top, anywhere from 1/8 ” to 3/16 ” thick to allow the flare to pass through. alternatively, you can purchase a humble cliched shoot camp, or an token such as the Godox Foldable Photo Table, which could work well for insects .
Photographer Clay Bolt capturing white-background "Meet Your Neighbours" field studio images in Mt. Tamalpais State Park, California.Photographer Clay Bolt capturing white-background “Meet Your Neighbours” field studio images in Mt. Tamalpais State Park, California. Neil Losin/Day ‘s Edge Productions With the Meet Your Neighbours technique, because we photograph on a white background, I beginning set up the Field Studio, and do a test using a twig, or a pebble, or something about the lapp size as my mean subjugate. You do n’t want to be figuring out your lighting situation once you have your subject in hand, so getting it properly before you introduce a critter is significant. It ’ randomness besides useful to shoot in a shaded area, possibly under a tree, for two reasons :

  1. It’s less stressful on the animal, because it’s not getting too hot.
  2. It’s a consistent lighting situation, and you have more control over your light.

once my television camera is in place, I always turn on the blink highlight warn, because when you shoot something on white, you might think there ‘s no backdrop information, but there might be a perplex in the background that ’ s not overexposed, and the flash highlights can help you catch this .
How do you use camera flashes with the Field Studio to backlight small animals or insects against white?
If it ‘s a tabletop apparatus, I have one flaunt underneath, balanced on its feet and with a dissemination attic cap. I typically do n’t want to damp the light besides much, I want it to be able to shine through the acrylic. And then I have the meet flash on a Benbo Trekker tripod with a Vello FlexFrame Softbox to diffuse the light, unless the capable is very small, or has a sealed metallic glow. In those cases, I might use a diffusion dome. But either way, both flashes are diffused in some manner .
Metallic Green Bee, Augochloropsis Metallica, South CarolinaMetallic Green Bee, Augochloropsis Metallica, South Carolina When testing my ignition, I foremost turn off the ostentation that ‘s facing the topic, and work with the ostentation that ‘s coming through the fictile from underneath or behind. If you try to start with both flashes at once, it ‘s good excessively confusing. Joe McNally has a great bible called the Hot Shoe Diaries, in which he explains that using news bulletin is like cooking ; you start with your basic ingredients, and then add in your second gear flash like the other ingredients. so, I start with that back brassy, and make want adjustments such as adding diffusion or moving the ostentation far aside from the background. once I get that where I want it, so there ’ s no information in the background, but the light international relations and security network ’ triiodothyronine overpowering the subject, then I add the flash that illuminates the subject immediately, at a lesser might than the news bulletin behind it, screen of treating it as a meet dart .
At that sharpen, I ’ ll catch my subject in a net income. If it ’ s something small, like an insect, I ’ ll transfer them into a little phial. then, I put the phial underneath a absolved Tupperware container and release them in that. normally, they ’ ll fly around for a few seconds and then stop to clean their wings. Once they stop, I lift the edge of the Tupperware container and take a few shots. I ‘ll do that a match of times, unless the insect starts to look stressed, which sometimes happens. In that case I ‘ll release it. While they ’ ra under the container, there surely seems to be some confusion, but they normally do n’t seem to be all that stressed. This solid procedure lone takes a few minutes, and then they fly away, and do their own thing .
Paper Wasp, Polistes MetricusPaper Wasp, Polistes Metricus Do you ever handhold your foreground flash, or ever use a bounce card to direct light?

sometimes, it depends. If I ‘m photographing something little, like a bee for model, or something like a plant, I ‘ll normally have the flash on a tripod. But if it ‘s something bigger, or if it ‘s in truth moving approximately, like a snake, then sometimes I ’ ll handhold the flash, or get a friend to handhold it, because the discipline is equitable besides big to be completely illuminated by the flash. sometimes I ‘ll even use two flashes. It equitable depends on the size of the subject. On some occasions, I ’ ve besides used a bounce card, but not so a lot. typically, there ‘s so much light coming from the flashes and softboxes that the basic frame-up works quite well .
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of photographing tiny common critters with macro techniques?
They ‘re constantly moving, and sometimes they are identical estimable at climbing top down. besides, they ‘re frequently found in very busy places, like around vegetation, or in shadow, and that can be a actual challenge. But to flip the question a little bit, I think the thing that I find challenge, but besides what I always strive for, is to show person a view of an animal that ‘s more than equitable something you can use to identify it. I actually try to show the personality of the species. I want person to look at the animal and connect with them in a means that goes beyond just something scurrying across the floor. And that takes some clock. You ‘ve got to learn about the behavior of the subjugate. You ‘ve got to spend some time getting near, crawling about on your abdomen, letting the animal feel comfortable and not threatened .
White-footed Deer Mouse, Peromyscus Maniculatus, South CarolinaWhite-footed Deer Mouse, Peromyscus Maniculatus, South Carolina Those kinds of things come from experience and research, knowing how to approach a subject. You see a lot of photos of snakes that are very threatened, which makes them look chilling, and it ‘s besides nerve-racking for the animal. And lapp with the wasp, and other things. I want to photograph those subjects looking deoxyadenosine monophosphate comfortable as possible, going about their daily lives so that people can very see what they ‘re like most of the time, not when some giant is there sticking a lens in its face .
What camera gear do you generally use for your wildlife work?
My main body is a Nikon D750, and I use a variety show of different lenses, which include a Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm lens with elongation tubes. One of my front-runner lenses is the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 solidus Fisheye, which allows me to do these close wides of subjects in their environment that I in truth love. I besides use a Sigma 180mm macro for more skittish subjects. Depending on the capable, I sometimes use a Tokina 100mm f/2.8 atx-i macro, but I have a variety of different duration macro lenses in my kit, good because I specialize in macro and it all depends on the national that I ‘m working with .
What flashes do you use in your macro work?
I used the Nikon SB-900 AF Speedlight for a long clock, and I recently bought the Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight, which is a great little flash. I used that quite a batch when I was in Indonesia, and it works quite well, so I think I ‘m going to enjoy using it long term .
Red Salamander, Pseudotriton Ruber, in the Field StudioRed Salamander, Pseudotriton Ruber, in the Field Studio You also work with extension tubes; do you use these a lot, and in what kinds of situations?
I do use them a distribute, specifically with my short macro lenses, like the 55mm, and sometimes with the 100mm, ampere well. I use a 27.5mm Nikon extension pipe to allow me to get closer to small subjects and increase the exaggeration. sometimes with bitty bantam bees and other insects, I ‘ll besides add a Kenko 1.4x or 2x teleconverter to get increased magnification .
Are there other photo accessories that you find particularly useful?
I sometimes use a Manfrotto MK190XPRO4-3W Aluminum Tripod with 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head, but not that often, because my subjects are so mobile it ‘s frequently not very useful .
You mentioned that the Meet Your Neighbours project has resulted in exhibitions or presentations with a global reach. Can you give any examples of this?
There ’ s a frightful list of photographers who have done, and are doing incredible stuff with the technique, and this project. A few of the projects I very love include photographer Emanuele Biggi, who did some amaze exhibitions in Rome with different species found in a local wildlife area. A guy named David Hunter did some incredible sour in California with cave species. A biologist named Twan Leenders has been doing some big stuff in Costa Rica and Panama, and he ‘s used those images in a plain guidebook of costa Rican Amphibians, and now reptiles besides. Steven David Johnson, who teaches at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, had all his students work on local projects with this proficiency. In Australia, a retire farmer named John Tidy has been doing a bunch of work, speaking with local organizations to show people the beauty and diversity of the species found in that one area. And in the westerly Ghats of India, conservation photographer Sandesh Kadur produced a reserve on biodiversity in the Himalayas and used a lot of these images in that book .
Undescribed Diasporus SP, Tink Frog, Cocobolo Nature Preserve, PanamaUndescribed Diasporus SP, Tink Frog, Cocobolo Nature Preserve, Panama Beyond the exhibitions, have there been other positive consequences of this project?
The number of modern species that have been found or discovered through this technique has been amazing to witness. A lot of our photographers have used it as share of the scientific process to document things in the field because it ’ s so utilitarian for recognition. I photographed a new species of frogs I found in Panama with this proficiency. Some of the work that ‘s been done in places like Borneo have used this proficiency, and then those stories ended up in places like National Geographic magazine. It ‘s been a big ride, and I wish I had more time to be involved, but at some point, it became automotive, and I did n’t truly need to be involved as a lot .
Will the Meet Your Neighbours project continue, or are there future exhibition or publication plans?
The project has already been featured in so many different magazines, exhibitions, and presentations around the worldly concern, and I ’ d like to think those things will keep coming. I ’ ve constantly had a fantasy about putting a script together after 10 years of the project because there are therefore many thousands of images—many of which can be found at the Nature Picture Library stock agency—and so many big stories that have been told. This has been on my mind, and if publishers have any interest, I need to explore that at some point .
But more than the project itself, the matter I ’ d like to emphasize is the theme that photographers can make a huge impact where they live ; you do n’t have to travel far away. That singular scoop of the world in which you ‘re living is probably the best identify to begin to work, because oftentimes there ‘s so much to be done there that ‘s being passed over for other places .
Photographer Clay Bolt in the field with a stack of tiny portrait subjects in plastic containersPhotographer Clay Bolt in the field with a stack of tiny portrait subjects in plastic containers Steven David Johnson What’s been the most surprising discovery you’ve made through the Meet Your Neighbours project?

One of the things that truly surprised me was that if you can open people ‘s eyes up to the beauty that surrounds them, and species that are around them, they do respond positively. I think people often have a hard meter seeing what ‘s right in front of them, because either everyone ‘s very busy, or they are precisely not naturally inclined to be able to look very closely. What I ‘ve noticed is that the photographers who are passionate about this undertaking are very like guides for their local community. And once you open person ‘s eyes up to something, whatever it may be—plants, or beetles, or bees—they ‘re not ever able to look at those things in the lapp way again. I hush have people write to me and say, “ I saw this spider. It creeped me out, but I put it outside the house. ” They did n’t squash it, because they were suddenly able to see its “ face, ” to see it in a unlike light. I think that ‘s the beginning of actually getting people to have empathy towards the natural world, because a lot of these species are very different than us, but they ‘re besides more like us than we realize sometimes, and I think helping to bridge that gap for viewers is very authoritative .
Learn more about Bolt ’ s Meet Your Neighbours Project here, visit his web site to see more of his work, and read our feature history Clay Bolt and His Quest to Save a Species with Images to learn about his other conservation projects. For more on macro photography, travel to Explora ’ s Macro Photography Week page, where you ’ ll find plenty of early tips, inspirational articles, and gear reviews .
Have you always photographed insects or other critters using a airfield studio apartment ? Tell us about your setup in the Comments part, below !

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